Wednesday, 29 July 2009

Sproggis - a further argument for nature vs nurture

I have in the past seen fit to blog on the subject of Margaret Mead, Samoa and the standard social science model; and how it held nurture to trump nature in the formation of character.

Looking back, I was predisposed to be sceptical because of a boy whom we shall call Sproggis (not his real name for reasons which will soon become apparent), who was with me through primary and comprehensive schools from the ages of 10-16.

Sproggis was from a street which we shall call Carlsberg Avenue (not its real name). Being from Carslberg Avenue carried an instant air of "bein' 'ard" around our parts. This was because our local council, for reasons best known to themselves, put all the council house rent defaulters into Carlsberg Avenue. This meant that over time the entire road filled with the kind of people who appear on the Jeremy Kyle show - dads absent, unknown or in prison; divorced mothers with kids by several different fathers, alcoholics, drug abusers, the long-term unemployed. It was a street down which nicely-brought up kids from up the hill (like me) Did Not Walk, for fear of being ambushed for fun and left tied to several different lampposts. At once.

Sproggis put the fear of God into the other inhabitants of Carlsberg Avenue from the age of seven. He was not large and imposing - most large imposing people I know are actually softies inside. Sproggis was a skinny, rat-faced ginger with scarily light blue eyes, which had no hint of human softness to them. Regarding his face was like staring into twin pools of smoking bleach, and was unadvisable at the best of times anyway for fear of getting a "What are YOU looking at?" beating.

By the age of 10, we all knew to treat him with circumspection. Sometimes he would be friendly, and you would enjoy those times like a brief interval of sunshine between thunderstorms. Inevitably, something would set him off; and senseless violence and the infliction of pain would follow.

Sproggis was not stupid - his intelligence frequently manifested itself in acts of devious larceny requiring considerable forethought and planning. The problem was that he was utterly without empathy. I still believe that he was - and is - a genuine psychopath. No morals, no remorse, no feelings for the pain inflicted on others. And recall that this was all apparent by the age of ten.

If you had come into our classroom in the third year of junior school (that's year 5 in new money) and said "Now then kids - which child in this class will be convicted of murder before their 25th birthday?" There would have been but the briefest of intervals before we all swivelled round and pointed our jam-smeared digits in Sproggis's direction.

A brief interval of hope appeared when he became quite a proficient break-dancer in his late teens; I remember reading in the local free paper that a judge had let him off a shoplifting charge because he was trying to turn his life around.

The judge's confidence was misplaced. Not long after he was arrested for burglary - carried out to feed what by then was a serious heroin habit. While in prison, he murdered his cellmate, and act that was covered for a day or so by the national press. I've always wondered how you could possibly come up with a plausible alibi, having been locked in a cell with one other person, who is then found brutally murdered the next morning. But then, this is psychopath territory - "he annoyed me so I killed him".

Bizarrely, he was released after serving 10 years or thereabouts. Still on heroin, he turned up at Carlsberg Avenue to call on his ex-girlfriend. His ex-girlfriend's mother answered the door, and refused to let him in. Upon which he beat her (the mother) so severely she ended up in hospital and will carry scars for the rest of her life.

As I write, he is back in prison.

Now the point of all this is not to impress you with what a hard school I went to (it wasn't that bad; Sproggis was a glaring exception to the general rule), but to point out that by the age of 10 we, his classmates, had already worked out what a professor of sociology would presumably deny - it was in his nature to be bad. Nurture didn't come into it.

Had they but taken our advice, he would have been preemptively locked up, saving at least one life and a whole lot of pain and anguish. Discuss.


Scarlet-Blue said...

Still too general...! Patterns of behaviour are set within the first four years of life. Or so I've read.

Gyppo Byard said...

So what you're saying, Scarlet, is that all children should be screened for evil tendencies at the age of five and incarcerated or drowned in buckets?

I propose that you send this suggestion to Jeremy Clarkson, c/o BBC Television Centre, Wood Lane, London.

Scarlet-Blue said...

Erm... well, it'd be a start.

Gadjo Dilo said...

Hmm, I dunno either. You don't give any description of his parents: were they themselves violent, psychopathic, shagnasty smackheads or nice, kind, Guardian-reading liberals? As for the bucket, if anyone can find one bigger than Jeremy Clarkson's head then please send it on.

No Good Boyo said...

I think most psychiatrists would agree with Scarlet that abuse and emotional deprivation in the first four years bring sociopathic (Sproggis is a sociopath on your description) tendencies to the fore.

There may be a genetic disposition towards mental illness, and the society he lives in (Carlsberg Avenue) may put no restraints on his behaviour, but a defective early upbringing is usually the key.

The difference between a true psychopath and a sociopath is a matter of dispute, but again many psychiatrists class as true psychopaths those who are too violent and delusion to function in society to any reasonable degree. Sociopaths are often able to bump along in the criminal/drug substratum until their way of life kills them or puts them in jail for ever.

A stable family life and an environment that draws clear boundaries of behaviour can keep such children on the rails, although there's no guarantee.

Gyppo Byard said...

OK one and each - I concede that it doesn't actually settle the matter, since the 'nurture' that Sproggis received in his early years may have turned him into a psycho.

Boyo - I've known other sociopaths, and Sproggis was in a different league. Sproggis didn't 'bump along' in the criminal class, he jumped on it in Doc Martens and then set fire to its trousers with lighter fuel. "For a laff".

Personally, he only seriously hit me on one occasion and at all other times would greet me with a superficially cheery smile, curiously enough.

No Good Boyo said...

You could be onto something:

Fetch the trepanning kit, nurse.

Word verification: friscal. What we'd get if Caroline Flint had become chancellor of the exchequer.

No Good Boyo said...

That should be